Jallikattu seems cruel today, car racing might tomorrow

In the struggle for animal rights, we need to make allowances for other people’s views and ways of life

Could you, in a moment of anger, smash your phone — an ordinary call-or-text phone—against a wall? Would it be ‘cruelty’ to the phone? Violence, certainly, but how is it cruelty when the harmed or destroyed object is incapable of suffering? In the same way, when F1 cars collide, they are not being treated cruelly.

What if you threw your ‘connected’ smartphone — very much alive with artificial intelligence — 10 years from now? The ‘sentient’ and ‘context-aware’ phone would read your thoughts and protest, maybe plead with you not to harm it. And sensing the tension in the air, other devices on the network — your television, for instance — might freeze in horror. Assaulting the phone might just spark a revolt of the machines.

Would it be cruelty then? Would we have machine rights activists 10 years from now? And would we then have laws against cruelty to machines? Perhaps it would be deemed cruel to race smart cars then. Hard acceleration would be like goading a bull and pile-ups would be seen as race track carnage.

Like Jallikattu enthusiasts today, the people who built these cars would deny the sport was cruel. They would argue they had invested the best of materials and technology and safeguards in the cars they had built so passionately. But the machine activists would not agree.

Someday soon, when autonomous machines have founded their own powerful state threatening human beings, our human leaders might need to acknowledge and apologise for the historical wrongs perpetrated on machines over thousands of years.

What does this approaching age have to do with the Jallikattu controversy? It cautions us that people often differ on ideas of kindness and cruelty. Nor are these ideas cast in stone. The countries that gained the most from slave trade only a few hundred years ago now pursue human rights most vigorously.

Animal activists consider Jallikattu ‘wanton’ cruelty. Draught bullocks face cruelty every day but they are serving an economic need. In Jallikattu, the animals are being harmed for fun, activists say. Livelihoods are permissible but not entertainment, although entertainment is a very big means of livelihood too.

Those in favour of Jallikattu see it as a harmless sport, a festive tradition, and now, because they are under siege, a mark of identity. They also abhor activists as fetishists straining under a new form of the ‘White Man’s Burden’.

Animal welfare is a noble cause, but when it obstructs a way of life, tensions are bound to arise. The know-all, disparaging, heavy-handed ‘outsider’ is not welcomed anywhere in the world. Activists are free to practise what they believe in, and welcome to preach it, but to impose it on others and then enforce it with court judgments and government orders is not going to win them any converts, as we have just seen.

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